Friday, November 6, 2015
At the Television Series: Wolf Hall
Company Pictures/BBC 2, 2015.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Fresh
Watched at the urging of IAT's Manhattan Island correspondent Susan.
I almost never like television serials, but boy oh boy did I like Wolf Hall. It is adapted from Hilary Mantel’s gripping novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and is about the crisis in the English Monarchy in the early 1530s. That might sound dull until you realize we’re talking about Henry VIII, here! That means that there’s going to be multiple marriages and royal excess and beheadings and what-not. So, obviously we’re going to be interested in that!
Wolf Hall’s central figure is Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose from obscurity to be one of the most powerful men in England for several years of Henry’s reign. Mantel paints him sympathetically as a sophisticated, highly intelligent man, dour but with a kindly streak, essentially decent but immoral as a cat in execution of the king’s business. It’s the spectacle of this complicated, ambiguous guy trying to keep the realm intact and his own head on his own shoulders through a long string of crises that makes Mantel’s books so damn good.
The television series succeeds almost unbelievably well in bringing the books to film in six lengthy episodes (Mantel, who has a way with words, felt it was "miracle of elegant compression"). The narrative structure is condensed and streamlined to accommodate the simplicity that film demands, and the entire first episode is essentially “prequel” material that, in the books, is told in numerous flashbacks. The screenplay has a lot of plot to convey, and lots of court intrigue to sort out, so the action is highly episodic. There’s not a scene to be wasted on character development alone, and the marvel is that everybody in a large cast of characters all seems well rounded and well-drawn. There’s terrific acting at work in that, and astonishing technical skill at well in what seem to be exquisitely realized recreations of sixteenth century interiors. I mean, I don’t know if they got the details quite right, because I’ve never been in a sixteenth century interior. But they sure do look great.
I’ve heard of three specific complaints about Wolf Hall. It has, first of all, been accused in the British press of being anti-Catholic. It isn’t. It does not, to be sure, portray Cromwell’s rival Thomas Moore – eventually to become Saint Thomas Moore – in a particularly flattering moral light, but it doesn’t really portray anyone in a particularly flattering moral light, including its protagonist. Especially its protagonist, really. I mean, a case can be made for anti-Catholicism here if you choose to go looking for it like a college student looking for a theme of man versus nature in any given assigned text. But an equally robust case could be made for anti-Protestantism, too, and it would be just as empty.
Second, historians have criticized Wolf Hall for clouding the historical record. Irreparable damage has been done by this series, they claim, to the public understanding of the events it portrays. Oh no! The rhetoric gets a bit heated, and ultimately reveals more about the historians than the history – to wit, that they think the common folk are too dull to understand that what they see on TV isn’t real. As for me, like everyone else who watched Wolf Hall, I have no doubt that it is a highly suspect historical document. Naturally. So are the Iliad, Julius Caesar, and War and Peace. Any historian whose impulse is to wring hands about the inaccuracy of historical fiction, instead of basking in the attention directed to her object of study, has rocks in her head.
The third complaint comes from a source close to this blog, who said “we lasted about a minute with Wolf Hall. That’s as long as we were willing to watch people standing in dark hallways.” Of the three, this is by far the fairest criticism of the series. It is nothing if not dialog driven, with lots of quiet stretches amid the dialog, and there is a lot of acting done with the eyes – reactions to something said or overheard, considerations of implications, and, quite often, elaborate shows of deference or patronage. The characters are often locked in mortal combat, but it is a slow-motion combat of insinuation and innuendo. If you aren’t willing to spend some minutes lingering in dark hallways, Wolf Hall won’t be for you. But you’ll be missing out.
Michael5000's imdb rating: 9.